These were some of the questions posed an the event hosted FACT on big data, featuring speakers from near and far and from differing backgrounds. In conjunction with IFG at CASI and Hope University, the event looked to highlight some of the poetical and cultural issues associated with the topic.

Conal Devitt, Director at the virtual marketplace IGL, began by outlining the scheme which sees volunteers rewarded with digital currency. The success of the organisation relies upon the relationship between itself as converger, the volunteer earner and the trader which accepts the virtual currency.

Devitt also spoke of Giving Tuesday, which happens on the first Tuesday in November in America, encouraging people to actively give their time, possessions etc.

He went on to outline a new software programme by which volunteers who teach, give and learn can look at their virtual bank account online. Projects to earn, and volunteering opportunities are also listed on the software. You can find via postcode places to spend your currency, all with the aim of getting people to teach, give and learn.

Keichi Matsuda began striking a rather ominous chord that as a society, we fear that we have lost a grip over our culture. However, as much as we disregard things like big data, it presents us with an unparalleled opportunity to quantify how our society functions. He wonderfully continued by showing a practical demonstration of how gathering big data works by attaching a sensor to an orchestra playing Stravinsky’s The Rites of Spring. A variety of data can be gathered by a fairly simple process.

Using big data in his art and design, Matsuda tries to offer counterpoints to the visions of the future offered by the big data companies. He tends to find that on the one hand people are very enthusiastic about the possibilities of augmented reality, whilst on the other hand they were very concerned about the super saturation of information and the invasion of privacy.

He was inspired by the design of cockpits when creating his films int terms of how we will interact with technology in the future, following the maxim that ‘form follows function’.

He spoke of his vision for future cities where there is no real distinction between the public and the private, and space will no longer be defined according to function. Furthermore, who will design the cities of the future? Physical employees like engineers, as well as virtual employees will design how we interact with these places. Matsuda is interested in how smart cities and big data can work together to change how we navigate space.

Whilst Matsuda was primarily concerned with big data and future cities, Professor Michael Mulqueen was more concerned with the financial ramifications of big data. He also began on a more optimistic note than Matsuda, stating that ‘There is a growing feeling that big data could transform policing, global health and wellbeing, drive economic growth and bring communities closer together.’

Mulqueen also said that big data promises economic growth in terms of efficiency and productivity. However, our mismanagement of big data has led to a global economic crisis. Big data is good for productivity and it’s the engine for global commerce with smarter technology for lower labour costs. Big data has created jobs for the young but these are poorly paid portfolio jobs that foster resentment against the powers that be. These big data gatekeepers are profiting from the guileless Google farmed data from innocent customers. What’s more, we are seeing indicators that big data could cause mass unemployment in 20 years’ time.

In terms of intelligence and law enforcement, big data has turned surveillance on its head. Mulqueen believes the way ahead is with innovation and ethics (sustainable innovation). He then went on to discuss the Snowden case, in which he felt the intelligence community was exploiting a ‘policy vacuum’. Law enforcement and government could no longer keep up with developments in big data. He thinks ethics was the currency in this policy vacuum. 

Mulqueen closed by stating that innovation viewed as troublesome ideas or disruptive thinking, coming from the industrial/creative sectors will effect the future of big data in our society. 

Richard Thieme opened his talk by asserting that the dynamics of life are changing radically, quantifying it with two quotes from noted computer scientist Langdon Winner. Winner first point was that ‘Insanity and wisdom are contextual’. He followed this up wit this epithet ‘To invent a new technology also requires the invention of people who will use it’.

We have invented computers and they have in turn reinvented us as a means of organising and structuring information. The balance of power is teetering on a tightrope between humans and computers, and things like human identity are now a question of fluid, shifting boundaries. What’s more, the response to terrorist threats has decontextualised the ways in which we think about politics, morality, law etc. Thieme states that the function of terrorism is to degrade the economy and undermine the faith of the public in their leaders to defend and protect society. Drones are being programmed to analyse and fire faster than we as humans can think. Dr. Pentland from MIT believes phones know when they are under surveillance. However, we look to our security as leaders because of their nature, they bind and inform the public. This has not stopped the secret services from ‘recontextualising’ the constitution.

Thieme continued by saying that society has turned into a laboratory in which behaviour can be objectively followed. Furthermore, in a network, we are trained to believe that power is exercised by participating and contributing, not by dominating and controlling. As a participator, you discover your leadership is not based on telling or ordering. 

He recognises four great achievements in the history of communications -

  • Speech
  • Writing (birth of religion)
  • Printing
  • Electronic communication

Yet it seemed as though perhaps one of or greatest failures as a society was looming large. Dan Gear CEISO at Inqtel said ‘The financial system abundantly proves that we humans are capable of building systems we cannot understand or control.’ 

The media presents big data, and by extension the actions of the big banks, as something which we are powerless to control. It is also a pre-mediator that sets the tone for future events in the news.

I think what can be concluded from the above speakers is that big data holds in store some very exciting prospects from how we live our day to day lives, from the commute to work, interaction with colleagues, working life and social get togethers.

However, there is a nefarious element to this vast increase in technological knowledge, as people will inevitably exploit the new information for their own ends. It is also very important that we are careful in terms of how much we potentialise computers and technology. 

Big data is a fascinating subject and so much of how we already think, act and behave corresponds to it. It’s now time to really make it work in our favour, whilst acting responsibly and with due care.

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